Otilia Lux de Coti
"When we get involved in politics, we gain a better understanding of power and we discover that it is an indispensable goal if we want to have a voice in key decisions. Being outside is not the same as being inside. When you’re inside, you find a deeply rooted, established structure, and although it is an enormous challenge, those of us who are inside have to find a way to make it more flexible and change it. When we are outside, we talk about change, but if we keep talking about change without having power, we won’t be able to bring about that change." - Otilia Lux de Coti
iKNOW Politics: Not only are you currently a Member of Congress, but you have also served as Minister of Culture and Sports in Guatemala (2000-2004) and permanent representative of Guatemala to the UNESCO Executive Council. What challenges have you faced in these positions as an indigenous woman? How have your background and prior experience helped you as a leader?
Women who participate in these types of activities in very conservative societies, such as that of Guatemala, which is a racist and machista society, face major challenges. It wasn’t easy to take on a political decision-making position like that of Minister of Culture and Sports during the administration of President Alfonso Portillo in a society that did not expect an indigenous Maya woman to hold a ministerial portfolio. I took up the challenge, however, and formed a multicultural, multidisciplinary team to demonstrate that Guatemala is a diverse country.
Based on this principle, we broke with old ways of doing things, and when we made decisions, we based them on principles of real public administration. We not only guaranteed the Ministry’s economic and financial aspects, but we formulated new cultural policies in consultation with other sectors. Taking a participatory, inclusive approach was different, because everyone felt involved. When we were in power, we could demonstrate to men that women are very capable of directing policies and programs and especially of managing a budget. We showed that we indigenous women, besides being capable, are also very honest. Until my term, “culture” was something sacred — the fine arts, untouchable.
But I promoted a radical change in that elitist view. For example, we asked the national symphony, which is recognized as part of our national heritage, to play in a city park, so as to reach a wider, less well-to-do audience, including students who wouldn’t have a chance to hear it anywhere else. So one basic element of all our policies, including national ones, was that they were inclusive. In that way, ours was a new form of leadership.
iKNOW Politics: What is the current state of indigenous women’s political participation in Guatemala, both in political parties and in government?
It is very weak participation. Very few indigenous women have opportunities to become Members of Congress or legislators or to participate at the local level. Right now, Rigoberta Menchú (a Quiché-Maya woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation) is trying to see how a solid group can be organized to develop a political vision of a pluralistic nation in which everyone who has been excluded can feel included. We started the process this year, so that four years from now a political party will be forming.
Besides including indigenous peoples as the main protagonists, it will also include people who have traditionally participated in political parties. Of course, we will be very careful that those who take part are progressive people with a pluralistic vision and a record of honesty. Sometimes people with a dubious reputation get involved in political parties, so we will have to be very careful as this project develops. Although not many indigenous women participate in politics, there are some significant examples: the head of the Peace Secretariat, the Ombudsman’s Office for Indigenous Women and other positions. But in general, we are still far from having consolidated representation and solid participation in the political sphere.
iKNOW Politics: Guatemala has no quota law. Is there an effort under way in this area for the benefit of indigenous women? Does the Guatemalan Congress have a women’s caucus, as other countries do? And if so, does that caucus make the problems of indigenous women more visible?
Yes. First, the Electoral and Political Parties Law does not include quotas. We are trying to get the law amended to incorporate quotas. There is a lot of opposition to that, however. So we are lobbying, especially with the leaders of all of the political blocs in Congress, to see how we can permeate the situation. This is one of the great challenges facing women in Congress right now. We started a women’s caucus this year. It consists of 20 Maya and mestiza women.
We supported and won approval for the law against femicide (April 2008). There was a lot of debate about that law. Our strategy was to invite members and leaders of all political parties, so they would also feel they were participating and would understand and support the legislation. Of course, many women who served as advisers to these politicians helped us, which was another strategy. Now we are four indigenous women in Congress. We are trying to include the “consultation of indigenous peoples” on the legislative agenda. Women, especially indigenous women, are talking with party leaders, and we will use the same strategies that we used for the law against femicide.
This draft legislation on the “consultation of indigenous peoples” refers to the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted so that they can decide whether to authorize the development of natural resources in their territories. It would begin a dialogue with indigenous peoples before a concession is granted. Indigenous peoples need to be informed in advance, not when the project has already been fully authorized. That consultation must clearly include information about the project’s impact on health, survival issues, and current and future ways of life. Ensuring transparency at all stages of the process will be crucial.
Fortunately, I have received support from people who understand the issue and who have supported similar processes in other parliaments, such as Raquel Irigoyen, who was working in Guatemala and understands the context. She is helping us draft a proposal in accordance with the international context and international instruments. For us, this would be the first real initiative coming completely from indigenous women, and we will see how mestiza women can help us. That’s what we did for the law against femicide, when the 20 women got together.
iKNOW Politics: As a Member of Congress, what other projects are you thinking of promoting to encourage greater participation by indigenous women in politics?
First, I would like to develop a Concessions Law, which, because it is general, is closely related to indigenous peoples, especially women. I would also like to be able to promote the inclusion in the Electoral and Political Parties law of an article that would establish 30 percent gender quotas. But of that 30 percent, at least 50 percent would be for indigenous women and 50 percent for mestiza women. That way I would be happy with my contribution to equality. It would address the issue of parity — parity between women and men and parity between indigenous and mestiza women.
iKNOW Politics: What do you believe are the main obstacles facing indigenous women in politics in Guatemala?
First, there are no clear norms for promoting the advancement of women. Second, in my opinion the political parties are undemocratic and very conservative. They only make room for men; they don’t open themselves up to women in general, much less indigenous women. Sometimes parties come to a woman leader and invite her, but without giving her real power. Other times they invite women who have financial resources and can support the party. In Guatemala, there are very few cases in which a woman is invited just because of her leadership abilities. There are other limitations, too, such as culture and the economic factor. It is important to remember that a lot of resources are needed to raise the profile of women leaders. It takes financing for advertising.
This brings me back to the need to revise the Electoral and Political Parties Law, so that the State finances the advertising of all political parties.
iKNOW Politics: Going back to the cultural factor, for indigenous peoples in general and Guatemalans in particular, are there limitations on women, especially those who seek leadership positions? As an indigenous Maya woman who has successfully held leadership positions, could you tell our readers how you addressed these challenges?
Yes, there are limitations. If the woman has not had the opportunity to get out, if she only stays in her community and is not exposed to the lifestyle of the mestizo population, it is difficult for her to overcome these limitations. Women who have had the opportunity to get out, who have participated in political or cultural life or other spheres, can question things a bit. In my case, the family, in consensus, has supported my choices. I liked politics, and fortunately my husband and children understand that and support me. I think this is an incentive, not just for women who cannot participate, but also for men. Meanwhile, the new generations, which are more open to the world outside our indigenous communities, are demanding to participate, to get out. In the long run, things will change and indigenous women will have more participation in community and government structures.
iKNOW Politics: In your position as a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2002-2004), you dealt with indigenous affairs at the international level. Although there has been progress in international mechanisms for protection of indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous women, do you think a body like the Forum really plays an important role? What weaknesses still exist in the international framework with regard to protection of indigenous women and especially their right to participate equitably in decision-making processes?
I think it’s time for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to make room for women who are involved in politics. It should make the issue a priority, promoting encounters of women politicians who hold offices in Latin America and the world, so as to promote ongoing dialogue among the women who participate in the Forum. Besides addressing its mandate, which is reflected in its six work areas, the Permanent Forum should also include the political sphere. This year, the priority will be the issue of climate change or global warming. Next year it could be, for example, how to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or how to promote the second decade of indigenous peoples, although without ignoring monitoring of the implementation of ILO Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries. The Forum deals with many issues that are related to women’s political participation, but it is still not a specific work area. For that reason, promoting dialogue is crucial. There should also be greater emphasis on capacity building for women. There are many women who do not get an opportunity to develop their skills. Perhaps the Forum can obtain funds and promote continental agreements to empower indigenous women with regard to their right to equitable political participation.
iKNOW Politics: What kind of influence have networks and networking had on your career? Do you believe they are useful? What do you think of the iKNOW Politics initiative?
iKNOW Politics is very important. Interrelationships and sharing of experiences among groups of women helps leverage knowledge, but also serves as a starting point for joint strategies among indigenous women. If all networks aimed at the same thing, at building women’s capacities, it would help ensure that the women in the network, besides being leaders in their own niches, go beyond that to participate in politics — for example, by supporting an indigenous woman who is running for office. Imagine if all the women in Asia said, “If Rigoberta Menchú is running in Guatemala, why don’t we all help?” They could send messages of support and solidarity.
Another example is Ecuador, where Nina Pacari is a magistrate. We would all help her and stand in solidarity. The same could be done for other women who are involved in politics. I think that being in power is extremely interesting, but it’s not widespread yet and networks of women and indigenous women aren’t paying much attention to it. We women become stronger with support. I believe that in any networked organization, women’s development should be the primary goal.
iKNOW Politics: What suggestions would you have for young women, especially indigenous women, who are interested in getting involved in politics but see it as a distant world to which they have little access?
When we get involved in politics, we gain a better understanding of power and we discover that it is an indispensable goal if we want to have a voice in key decisions. Being outside is not the same as being inside. When you’re inside, you find a deeply rooted, established structure, and although it is an enormous challenge, those of us who are inside have to find a way to make it more flexible and change it. When we are outside, we talk about change, but if we keep talking about change without having power, we won’t be able to bring about that change. I would like to invite indigenous women to take up the challenge. Many indigenous women prefer to remain in their organizations and continue with their projects there, but they don’t take that next step.
Through our organizations, we can ask the government for things and make recommendations, but we get frustrated when it doesn’t respond. When you’re inside, it’s different. Although we often come up against laws that tie the hands of public officials, there is the opportunity to have the power to make the changes that we need. Indigenous women must participate in the political arena. Now that I am in Congress, I realize that we are so few women, or we are so few representatives of indigenous peoples or of the party, that when we want to achieve something, when we want to make a decision, it’s too difficult. Because the party with the largest number of elected Members is more powerful. So if someone wants to bring about change, my recommendation is to participate, without being shy. You have to lose your fear. It’s time to participate in the political arena.
iKNOW Politics: As a final comment, how important do you think the First International Forum of Indigenous Women (Lima, Peru) was, particularly in its assessment of indigenous women’s political participation?
First, it was an initiative of women who are organized, and it offered the opportunity to learn about many advances. I have many years of experience in the indigenous movement in my country and in Latin America, and we have achieved goals. That is unquestionable and irreversible. At the seminar, we shared experiences and strengthened our strategies in each organization, in the national movement and, of course, in Latin America. We still need to address more issues. There are other areas, such as partisan politics, which are still weak.
At this event, we examined not just progress, but also challenges. One is the need to find many more direct opportunities for sharing with other women’s groups. Another challenge is to strengthen the indigenous movement in Latin America, based on alliances among our groups. We must share all of our gains, and there should be a stronger alliance. At the same time, besides participating in these spaces, indigenous women face a challenge with our families and our communities. Finally, there is the crucial challenge of getting involved in government. It is worth the effort, because we have experience based on values and principles, and when you have that, it’s difficult for anyone to defeat you. Participating in a political party doesn’t mean selling out our principles and values.
On the contrary, it means defending them in those spaces. At the seminar, we also looked at the weaknesses in our organizations. Often they cannot support themselves. We have to work for sustainable organizations, so they can become stronger. International cooperation continues to contribute, but international cooperation agencies must also unify their strategies so as to enhance initiatives and not duplicate efforts. I believe that international cooperation must be more consistent in its support for women’s organizations, particularly indigenous women. There are 5 million of us in Latin America. I would ask international cooperation agencies to focus more on indigenous women and women of African descent, so that we also have the possibility of advancing in places where decisions are made and enhancing our capabilities, skills and intellectual capacity so that we can continue to develop.